Scriptures for Sunday, April 20, 2014

Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 16
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

The calendar says we still have to get through the Three Days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil, but here we are already looking at the text for Resurrection Day. The forty days are almost over. We can see the end of our Lenten journey. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem and He has set into motion the culmination of His life and ministry.

So, how did you do? Did you manage to break an old habit or are you anxiously awaiting the moment you can dive into your favorite chocolate bar? Did you establish a new habit of prayer or Bible study over the past seven weeks, or did you fail during the first few weeks and never bother to try again? Did you even get around to making a commitment to do something new or give up something old?

It doesn’t matter: however you answer those questions is between you and God. You aren’t a bad person if you didn’t give up chocolate for forty days or take up a new prayer discipline during Lent. You aren’t any more a sinner if you ate meat on Friday or forgot to attend Wednesday night Lent services. God does not call us to these things to burden us with more than we can handle; the Lenten disciplines were meant to be gifts to help us focus more clearly on our relationship with God. It does not help us to end this journey with a powerful guilt; guilt keeps us from seeking God’s grace because it makes us feel like we aren’t worthy.

Here’s the thing: we aren’t worthy. We aren’t good even if we have managed to keep our commitments this Lent. Our fasting does not earn us anything in God’s Kingdom and though good devotional practices and prayer will be to our benefit, they don’t make us any more worthy in God’s eyes for His grace.

We can’t be worthy. Ever. But God is not looking for worthy people to join Him in rejoicing at the empty tomb this Sunday. He is looking for humble people of faith who know that the only way to get to the empty tomb is through the cross of Jesus Christ. A prominent politician recently said, “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.” He has earned his way to heaven.

Has he? He says, “…if there is a God…” His attitude is no different than most of the world. We believe in good works. We believe that we have done enough to earn our way into heaven. The truth is this: whatever we have done, whichever ‘side’ of any issue on which we stand, our work will not make us worthy. It is by faith we have been saved, and that too is a gift. It is given to us by the One who obediently and humbly and passionately went through the Three Days of pain, betrayal, denial, suffering, crucifixion and the grave to defeat sin and death by rising on Easter morning.

It is ironic that the politician would make such a claim during Holy Week. Our minds are set on heaven during this time as we experience the miracle of God’s grace in Easter. We see the world come alive with the fresh new growth of spring. We celebrate the day by gathering with our family and friends. We break out of best clothes, and even go buy a new dress or suit for the occasion. Our churches will be filled with sweet smelling lilies and we can once again since “Alleluia” to our God. The stories of the Passion and the Resurrection turn our hearts to the God who has done all this for us. Yet in the midst of all this, there are many who have this understanding that their good works will earn them a place in heaven.

They miss it completely; they misunderstand God as much as those religious leaders in Jerusalem did nearly two thousand years ago. They continue to rely on their own strength and to see their own accomplishments as good and right and true. They are arrogant and ignorant. They don’t necessarily appear arrogant or ignorant. As a matter of fact, many people who think like this do wonderfully good works and are both humble and intelligent in the ways of men. However, their humility and knowledge are the very things keeping them from a good and right and true relationship with God. They act as servants to men while ignoring or rejecting or doubting the reality of God and thus raising themselves as gods in this world.

If we read the resurrection texts from all the Gospels in the next few days, we will see Jesus appear before many people. He appeared to Mary in the garden and when He spoke her name she knew it was her Lord. He walked with two of His disciples on the road Emmaus. These men were discussing the events of the week when Jesus joined them. They told Him the story and invited Him to dinner. They did not know who He was, because their eyes were closed. At the table, Jesus broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they understood the scriptures Jesus had spoken to them. He appeared to the disciples who were eating together, and He rebuked them for not believing the witness of those who testified to His resurrection. He appeared to Thomas, who required tangible evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus came and told him to put his finger in the holes. Thomas confessed His faith, “My Lord and my God.” But Jesus answered, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The question we ask for this week is not “Did you do enough to earn your way into heaven,” but rather, “Do you believe?” Do you believe in the God who created the heavens and earth? Do you believe in the God who saved Israel from Egypt and took them to the Promised Land? Do you believe in the God who gave us the Law to help us to live good and right and true lives in this world? Do you believe in the God who appointed the judges and the kings and the prophets? Do you believe in the God who repeatedly saved His people despite their failure to live according to His Word? Do you believe in the God who had mercy on His people who kept turning away? Do you believe that God was always faithful, even when His people were not?

Do you believe in the God who sent His own Son to be beaten, betrayed, denied and killed on a cross? Do you believe that the One named Jesus who was obedient even to being nailed on a cross? Do you believe He died and was buried in a tomb for three days? Do you believe that in doing so Jesus took upon Himself the entire weight of the sin of the world, including your own? Do you believe that He rose again? Do you believe that He did this so that you will be forgiven and raised to new life with Him? Do you believe that He has called and gifted His Church and sent us out into the world to tell the story again and again so that the whole world will believe?

Do you believe?

How do you think the disciples were feeling during the Three Days? They were broken. The unimaginable had happened and they could not see beyond that moment. I wonder if some of them were angry with God? Did they think about following Barabbas, who was set free while Jesus was crucified? Did they think perhaps he was what his name suggests “son of the father,” instead of Jesus? Were they ready to give up and return to their old lives, getting along as best they could in an oppressed world?

Whatever plans they were making on that Resurrection Day were shaken. The cross wasn’t the end; it was only the beginning. The tomb was empty. Jesus had been raised. It wasn’t enough, however, for the body of Jesus to be missing from the cave. Most of the people in Jerusalem, especially the Romans and the religious leaders, suggested that there had to be some other explanation. They didn’t believe in the resurrection, so they spread rumors that someone stole the body. There are still people who say that it could not have been resurrected.

The disciples, despite the promises in the prophecies and the words of Jesus, wondered what happened. They lost hope and they didn’t believe the witness of those who did see Him at first. But we know from the story that Jesus not only was raised, but that He visited His disciples and even ate with them. He was made manifest in their presence after He was raised so that they might believe. Jesus honored those disciples by appearing to them; they were chosen to see Him so that they could then go out into the world and reveal Him to others. Do you believe?

When you believe, you are raised with Christ, and when you are raised with Christ you are called to a new life. God will make His grace manifest in your life. You are called, like Peter and those first disciples, to be His witnesses, living a life of revealing Christ to others in your words and in your deeds. You are called to a life that leaves behind the old ways and takes on His garments of righteousness. Through faith in Christ, a faith that God produces in us when Christ is revealed, we become His people and He is our God.

We will never be worthy. We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s why Jesus died and rose again. We don’t realize it because we think what we are doing is good. See, sin begins small but builds, as it takes more and more to fulfill the desire, drawing us ever deeper into the sinful behavior. Take gambling, for instance. It usually begins rather innocently—a successful trip to a casino or a night of bingo. It doesn’t hurt to buy just one lottery ticket and how fun it is to win! So, the gambler goes back to play again, certain that luck is on her side or that he is destined to get rich. So certain are they of their promise, they go back again and again, even when they lose, expecting the next trip will be the winner.

The consequences of sin do not begin as overwhelming problems. As a matter of fact, there is usually some pay-off: the occasional win for the gambler, the buzz for the alcoholic, the excitement and intimacy of promiscuous sexual behavior. For someone like that politician, the pay-off is the respect and acclamation of those who like what he is doing. It is mesmerizing to have the crowds hang on your every word. They ignore the criticism and forget that they aren’t perfect, and then eventually they claim they will walk into heaven because the work they did made them worthy.

A gambler takes ten bucks and turns it into a hundred. They don’t give up when they lose, they are sure the next game will be a winner. A weekly trip to the bingo hall becomes a daily ritual. Ten dollars becomes hundreds. The family is pushed aside so that the gambler can feed the desire to win, always hoping to recoup what has been lost. Eventually the money for food, rent and clothes is gone and the family is left desolate. Relationships break and the gambler is left with nothing but the need to gamble. Most hit rock bottom before they ever realize they have a problem. This is true for all addictions. At that point there seems to be no way out, no hope for the addicted. But this is exactly why we celebrate the Resurrection; there is no hope without Him.

Even in the face of overwhelming consequences, there is always hope. When salvation seemed impossible, God saved sinners from death and the grave. We all suffer the effects of sin in our lives, we are all tempted and we fall into that temptation; we are drawn so deeply into our sin that we know no way out. But there is always a way—God. He is our victory over the things of this world that threaten to destroy our lives. Even when nothing is left, there is hope in the salvation of our Lord. We have been saved from eternal death by His mercy and grace. In that grace God’s transforming Spirit makes us new and gives us the strength to face the things that threaten to destroy us.

We don’t say, “If there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven.” Easter reminds us to say, “There is a God and He died so that I will be forgiven and He rose so that I will be welcomed into heaven.”

Paul writes, “If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory.”

I don’t think we should stop with verse 4, though. See, many people read this text and think that Paul was talking about some spirituality that rejects the earthly body. It is tempting to read today’s epistle lesson and think that Paul is suggesting that we reject the world and look only toward heaven. There are many Christians who think solely about those things “above,” rejecting everything about the flesh.

If we continue to read, we will find that the next two paragraphs put Paul’s lesson into perspective. First Paul shows us what we are to let go. He said to put aside fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry; for which things’ sake cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience. The people of Colossae knew what it was like to live in a religious world that focused on these things. They used their bodies, the pursued their passions, they focused on their own goodness and lusted after the things that can harm the flesh and the spirit.

But that doesn’t mean we should reject the body completely. Paul goes on to tell us to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness.

Christ calls us to live in the world even while we are no longer of the world. In other words, in Christ we have been transformed into His image and we now belong to His Kingdom, but there is work to do in the here and now. We are joined with Him; as we grow in faith and mature in grace, God shines through our lives with ever increasing glory. It is not our work, but God’s. It is not our glory, but God’s.

So, we are called to seek after the things of God, not only heaven, but also His kingdom here on earth. We are to look for the helpless and the hungry, the lonely and the sinners. These may seem like some to be the very things that are ‘below’, but it is in the suffering of this world that we find Christ. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember as we join together to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord this Sunday. Our pews will be filled with people who have come to hear the story of Hope found in the empty tomb. Many of them will be suffering in ways we cannot possibly know. Many of them will not even know why they have come to worship that day.

We need to remember that it is not in our power to change their lives. As we reach out to those who need to experience God’s grace, we need to let go of our own goals and expectations to let God be manifested in our lives. We need to stop being arrogant and ignorant, remembering that we would be worthless if Christ hadn’t made us worthy. They’ve come to see His glory, not ours.

God taught Peter an awesome lesson in today’s first lesson: that His love and mercy is for all men who hear and believe the Gospel message. Peter expected to minister to the Jews, to his own people. But when God called him to the house of Cornelius, he realized that God did not play favorites. The people who heard the Gospel were not all in the same circumstances. God provided the opportunity and the gifts for the apostles to share Him with all sorts of different people. It is the same today. Not all will be prepared for the message in the same way, not all will receive it with the same heart. But God does not play favorites. He does not care if people are from one place. It does not matter to Him if they are male or female, young or old. He does not look at a person’s credentials, their job or the people they know. He only sees the heart. His message is given for all those who will hear and believe.

Do you believe? That is the question for this Easter Sunday. Your answer will determine whether you walk through those gates into heaven. Christ is the One who obediently and humbly and passionately went through the Three Days of pain, betrayal, denial, suffering, crucifixion and the grave to defeat sin and death by rising on Easter morning. We who believe need not spend our days looking to heaven wondering if there is a God. We know that we have died with Christ so that we will live with Him for eternity.

As His Easter people, He has invited us to go out into the world in that faith to share His grace with all the nations so that they too will believe.

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